Simple Minds: Once Upon A Time (DVD-Audio) Review
The 1980’s were a period where musical fashions changed quite rapidly and dramatically throughout the decade, making the progress of many pop bands musical development quite exciting and unpredictable, but not always advantageous, as ABC found to their cost with their off-the-wall Beauty Stab follow-up to one of the pop highlights of the decade The Lexicon of Love. Always keen to move with the times and avoid a similar fate, Simple Minds had already ditched their early 70’s punk and Krautrock influences for the sophisticated, lush, pop of 1982’s New Gold Dream, which seemed to be the culmination of their progress and influences thus far. With the sudden and huge success of their single Don’t You Forget About Me in the USA however, the band’s direction changed dramatically, and was perhaps more calculatedly populist.
The reason for the Simple Minds change of direction remains a mystery to me, but rather than being where the band creatively wanted to go, they seemed to be directed by the demands of the fashion for big, stadium-rocking, radio-friendly anthems and, consequently, by the lure of big, big money and there was no doubt some degree of ego involved. Thus the lush landscapes, dreamy instrumentation and sonic pop experiments of New Gold Dream were sacrificed for mindless chanting and sledgehammer rhythms, drawn out to levels of mind-numbing tedium in live performances, all to sate the appetites of the worshipping stadium masses. The few traces of the Simple Minds of old that remained in their 1984 Album Sparkle In The Rain, were all but smothered in Steve Lillywhite’s flat, tinny production, and they were completely eradicated by the time the band came to record Once Upon A Time in 1985.
Once Upon A Time is remastered, remixed for 5.1 sound by Jeff Levison and released on DVD-A format, with a number of other high-quality sound format options that will make it compatible with most DVD set ups, including DTS 5.1 and PCM Stereo. As I am not equipped to test out the DVD-A track, this review is based on the DTS mix. Each of the surround mixes is 24bit at a 96K sample rate, the PCM Stereo 16bit at 48K. The video aspect of the disc is in NTSC format and the DVD is not region encoded. The disc retains all the original album artwork, though reduced to a size where it is almost unreadable.
Once Upon A Time
All The Things She Said
Alive And Kicking
I Wish You Were Here
Come A Long Way
Opening with crashing chords, thumping drums, thin, reedy keyboards, echoing U2-style harmonics, a huge booming echoing sound, with Jim Kerr beating his chest and chanting in a declamatory Bono-style, supported by wailing backing singers, Once Upon A Time lets us know what to expect from the rest of the album – a truly horrendous excuse for music known as Stadium Rock. At least in DTS 5.1 sound this achieves the desired effect.
A nice little piano rhythm from Mick MacNeill at the start of All The Things She Said momentarily recalls the finer pop sensibilities of the band’s past, but this is soon ruined by more overblown layers of vocals, given full vent here in the 5.1 mix to rather staggering effect. The mix remains bright and clear apart from the drums, which are rather dull and flat, and a rather thudding bass.
“Cities, Buildings Falling Down/ Satellites Come Crashing Down/ I See Them Falling Out The Skies Like Eagles/ Where The Streets Have No Name”. OK, I added the last line myself, but Ghost Dancing, a reworked I Travel, is riddled with the same overblown imagery, not to mention an identical opening guitar riff to the U2 song. Charlie Burchill, who demonstrated such imaginative and beautiful guitar sonics in New Gold Dream, ought to be ashamed of such blatant pilfering. This is a truly godawful song – “You Talk About South Africa, I’ll Tell You About The Irish Children” – yeah Jim, tell me about it, so the Belfast Child can sing again...
There is little wrong with the DTS mix though, I’ll give them that. All the instruments are fairly clear and well separated – you can almost hear the cymbal taps, but not quite that clearly. There’s a bit of a kick in the bass drum, Kerr’s vocals are strong, embarrassingly bawling his head off to get above this cacophonic mess.
Surprisingly, considering the anthemic status of Alive And Kicking (probably second only to Waterfront in its epic qualities), this actually comes across as relatively retrained amidst the relentless bombast of the rest of this album. The 5.1 mix really breathes new life into the song – a reasonably bright hi-hat tap, echoing guitar harmonies, strong bass, solid sharp keyboards and perfectly pitched vocals show a degree of subtlety that I didn’t think was in the song. The 5.1 track also makes imaginative use of the surround speakers, giving the song room to breathe and distributing the vocals and harmonies in a spiral around the mix. Unfortunately, the respite is brief.
Oh Jungleland opens with a good drum sound, but the whole song is overly bright, reflecting the radio friendly original production by Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain. The song is bloody awful, full-tilt, mindless stadium fodder - “There’s A Kid Called Hope/ And He’s Holding Out His Hand”, Kerr wails before imploring us to “Come And Take Me Away!”. By this stage I’m begging for someone to listen to him – seriously, the effect of this relentless onslaught will leave you shaking – but my DVD player warns me that there is 15 minutes more of this.
The pace is less driving on I Wish You Were Here, MacNeill’s piano and keyboard rhythms carry the song along nicely, but the song is uninspired and goes nowhere unimaginatively. Jim Kerr’s vocal delivery is simply dreadful. The sound, as ever, is excellent and well mixed for 5.1, demonstrating good clarity and separation on all of the instrumentation.
The sound quality is also excellent on Sanctify Yourself, with a pretty impressive snare drum sound and a solid chunky bass, although the thin electric piano is again a little too close to U2. The song is well suited to Kerr’s religious ecstatic stage presence, though it has none of the mystical qualities of old. The song, again speaking personally, does absolutely less than nothing for me.
Another utterly forgettable chant-a-long on Come A Long Way shows no variety or distinctive qualities to lift it above anything else on this tortuous album. Again, there is not much wrong with the sound mix, which has depth, tone and clarity of vocals and instrumentation.
Overall, Once Upon A Time, transfers extremely well to DTS 5.1, much better than the DVD-Audio release of New Gold Dream, though Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain’s production is clearly better suited to the booming echoing stadium rock sound of the album that a 5.1 mix can reproduce so well. More than this however, the sound design is consistent, retaining vocals centre stage, allowing each of the instruments to have their own space and stand out well in the mix. The driving drums and bass that are essential to holding the songs together, and which were so lacking on the New Gold Dream DVD-A, are much more solid here – though perhaps a little too tinny and echoing in places for my personal taste.
Lyrics are included for all songs and are worth a look to see just how overblown and nonsensical they can get in their anthemic chant-ability. “Love Was A White Dove, And Hope, Long Live Hope, Could Spin The Whole World ‘Round” (Once Upon A Time). Truly, truly bad lyrics for every song.
A Discography presents cover images for other Simple Minds albums, without tracklistings. Videos are included for All The Things She Said and Alive And Kicking, in 4:3, NTSC format, with both DTS5.1 and PCM Stereo mixes. Jim Kerr should be really embarrassed by his outfits and performance in All The Things She Said, shot to cheapo superimposed multiple image effects, while Alive And Kicking sees the band do the big outdoor standing on a mountain thing, though significantly they seem to be looking out over an American landscape of raging torrents and dramatic sunsets rather than the Scottish highlands. The picture quality is as good as would be expected for promotional video material of this age – relatively clear, bright and colourful. Links are also provided to relevant web-sites.
Once Upon A Time works well in DTS 5.1, and even better, I would assume, in the DVD-Audio remix of the album - Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain’s booming production being well suited to the bombastic stadium shuddering arrangements given full rein in this high-definition format. Additionally, the songs haven’t really dated that much – they hold up as well as they ever did and could even be seen to have improved in the remastering. Personally though, I didn’t ever think they were good songs, and as an album there is no sense of subtlety, pace, dynamism or variety in these eight tracks. If however, you are a fan of the post-Don’t You Forget About Me Simple Minds, then this vibrant DVD-Audio remastering of Once Upon A Time will not disappoint, successfully capturing what the album is all about and giving it new added force.